There is a certain set of sentences by John Gossage, in reply to Thomas Weski, then curator of the exhibition « There and Gone », in Hannover, Germany, that is stuck in my mind. I know that the circle of Gossage fans love the book if they can get their hands on it, elsewise this book (serving as a catalogue and artists book at the same time, produced by Nazraeli Press) is rather unknown. The first and second parts of the series have been made at the Mexican-American border, one set of pictures along the hidden paths crossing the border, one showing Mexicans bathing in the sea, photographed from American Territory with a 1000 millimeter lens. The interview in the book is revealing, and Weski just needs a few questions to start the photographer of. Gossage’s answers to Weski’s remarks and questions are wry, intelligent, emotional and complex.
About the decisions that led to the complicated process of shooting across and through the border fence, Gossage first says that is far simpler for an American to cross the border south than for a Mexican to cross to the north, and that he had wanted to reflect this distance and asymmetry. He then goes on to quote Miles Davis, who had claimed that he could spot a good musician just in the way somebody carried himself, even across a distance, even in a shady room. The people on the beach on Gossage’s pictures can not be recognized as individuals perhaps, but individual traits of the body and the way it is held can perhaps in fact be recognized on his pictures. And a different kind of understanding something is hinted at, different to the way photography is generally used as a depicting medium that focuses on the face and its traits (in every practice between police photography and August Sander –style photography).
These thoughts have an esoteric ring to them and it’s hard to come to terms with blurriness in photography. There are kinds of out-of-focus photographs that might sell on the fine arts market sometimes, images bordering on abstraction, but in general photographers might use this way of photographing for one series but no more.
In a new series « Coming up for Air » Stephen Gill has been working with this method (with images taken in Japan), and explained why he needed to do this (make photography more physiological, less about knowledge more about sensing) and other blurry images have often come with a set of theoretical thoughts (such as Nakahira Takuma’s impressive writings) that one needs to understand them.
One apparent quality of the photographs Doug Rickard has called « A New American Picture », of which he has published 69 in an artist’s book, of a series that up to now contains around 200 images, is the exactness of the blurriness of the people portrayed in them.
I will just try to write down why I think this (given that the last sentence is some sort of nerdy and badly-articulated jumble-wumble).
Although the series has created quite a buzz on the web, and has been exhibited in a museum show at LE BAL in Paris (just to be honest : to which I slightly contributed), here a short recap : Google has photographed Streets in mayor cities in the US (and elsewhere) from a car at regular intervals, feeding them into their visualization program, which can be used to promenade along virtual streets. Apart from the legal problems this has caused, several artists have used the images thus generated, among them Michael Wolf and Edgar Leciejewski in Germany, …
At the Arles Photofestival later this year the curators Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid, Joan Fontcuberta and Clement Cheroux plan to show up to 80 works stemming from an editioralisation or re-use of those or similarly generated images on the net.
If you look at Google Street View now, a lot of the older generation of images, say from five years ago, have been upgraded to HD and have become pretty crisp. Doug Rickard (all the information I quote comes from email exchanges) specifically choose the older and more blurry images, because he had aimed at documenting a larger time span, say the last ten to fifteen years, rather than a precise moment in time. I was surprised at this idea, and found a similar thought in the writings and conversations by British photographer Craigie Horsfield.
Who sees documentary photography’s strength in showing a period in time, and the way time behaves, i.e. moves slowly or even stops, rather than working on a moment in time.
Which is a way of examining all sorts of propaganda of progress. In Horsfield’s series made as a commission in Barcelona there is the portrait of a policeman, against a dark background, looking at the camera with a light smile. The expression on his face, the uniform he wears, the comportment of his body make the photo look like it was shot in the seventies. I don’t think Horsfield had wanted to tell us that Spanish policemen are outdated or atavistic, but in the context of his work on the community of people in Barcelona that he documents he shows the role of the policeman as the portrayed might understand it himself, to good or bad effect.
Contrary to the Walker Evans quote that the amount of shadow in a picture (its blurriness) is in a reverse relation to its quality
Artists like Craigie Horsfield or John Gossage have shown that a certain blurriness (always more or less in the documentary-style context of photography) can have good arguments for their use of it. In documentary photography there are uncountable nuances for how focus and out-of-focus in images balance each other, how subjectivity or poetry is achieved, compare Anders Petersen to Trent Parke, Stéphane Duroy to Chris Killip, Michael Schmidt to Einar Schleef, Moriyama to Takanashi, and so on. Stephen Gill and Doug Rickard have woven into their work images recalling earlier series of the old masters (in the first case Japanese, in the second American) reworking motives as a sort of historical backdrop.
In the case of « ANAP » this is also backed by a very clear idea of clothing and the colors people wear, of cars and locations (places which Doug Rickard would sometimes visit himself before searching them out on Google Street view). Looking at the images in the series we might try to discern something about the people, but our general training and understanding of photography makes us look at the faces and features of the people portrayed. But not only are Rickard’s images blurry (for economical reasons, i.e. the first investment Google made in the cameras they used) but the faces of the portrayed are also rendered unrecognizable by software.
But, studying the images, we have other ways of examining them, looking at the posture of the body, the gesture and the clothes, and the places where people are, their relationship to the street on which they walk or mingle, drive or work. And this leads to the question of editing, which to me is one of the strengths of « ANAP » (which hopefully will be made affordable to a larger public by a large publishing house later this year). Apart from the locations in different American cities (sought out by Rickard with the help of real estate forums, where he searched for the poorest areas in those cities), apart from the clothes and cars, the Streets and shops one can discern, Rickard looks for possible expressions of the people he chooses: proudness, defiance, defeat, or more ambivalent expressions, the description of which his photographs are more able to transport than my words.
And I cannot help returning to Walker Evans and the different ways in which he had tried to designate a meaning to his series later to be published under the title « Many are Called ». To me one of the fascinations of this sort of photography remains in the strange ability of some photographers to combine an acute sense of the social and political realms with an understanding of the esthetics of photograph, the ability to address images at us about the unseen and unthought-of.